Years from now, we may look back on Sept. 6, 2016, as the beginning of the end in Washington of secret talks for government union contracts funded by taxpayers.
On that day, Lincoln County Commissioners Rob Coffman, Scott Hutsell and Mark Stedman unanimously adopted a resolution requiring all future county contract talks with government unions to be open to the public.
Lincoln County’s resolution highlights several reasons collective bargaining talks with government unions should be opened up. Among them:
▪ Transparent and open government should be a top priority.
▪ Collective bargaining agreements forged with unions are among the most expensive contracts negotiated by counties.
▪ Both taxpayers and employees deserve to know how they’re being represented during negotiations.
▪ The impression of secret deal-making is eliminated when these negotiations are open to the public.
These facts also hold true for Pierce County.
The fantastic open government reform adopted in this lightly populated county in Eastern Washington is one that all Washington counties and cities should embrace. The Washington Coalition for Open Government agrees and is awarding Lincoln County commissioners a “Key Award” for their bold action. “Key Awards” are bestowed on “individuals and organizations for actions that advance the cause of open government.”
Unfortunately, government employee unions are fighting the commissioners. They call informing the public an “unfair labor practice” and have filed complaints against Lincoln commissioners. Union executives say the transparency should end because they didn’t agree “to make public all future collective bargaining negotiations.”
Who knew that allowing taxpayers to see what contract promises are being made with their money is an “unfair” practice?
Thankfully the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission issued an initial ruling Oct. 28 that rejected the union complaint. The union, however, just filed an amended complaint. We will continue to monitor what PERC and the unions do next in this important fight for open government.
Just as Lincoln County did, state government should also pull back the shroud of secrecy that covers talks between state employees and the governor. In 2002, Gov. Gary Locke signed a bill that fundamentally altered the balance of power between the governor and Legislature concerning state employee compensation in the budget.
The purpose was to reform Washington’s civil service laws, and for the first time in state history it gave union executives power to negotiate directly with the governor behind closed doors for salary and benefit increases. At the same time, these unions are a powerful political force in helping governors win election.
Collective bargaining for state employees used to be limited to non-economic issues such as work conditions, while salary and benefit levels were determined through the normal legislative budget process. But since the secret collective bargaining law went into effect in 2004, union executives no longer have their agenda weighed equally with other special interests during budget negotiations.
Instead, lawmakers are left in the dark, with only the opportunity to say “yes” or “no,” with no amendments, to the entire contract agreed to by the governor and unions.
Budget decisions costing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars should not be made in secret. The Legislature should take back the power to set compensation costs in the budget, as was done before 2004.
At a minimum, transparency must be provided for this process as occurs in several other states, including recent reforms in Idaho and Colorado.
This is exactly what Lincoln commissioners have accomplished at the county level. They were the first in Washington, but with the public’s ongoing support and help they won’t be the last to embrace transparency for government union contracts funded by taxpayers.
With a new county executive and council members set to take office in January, will Pierce County be the next to open the doors to the public?
Jason Mercier is director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, based in the Tri-Cities.